Mozilla — the company behind the open-source Web browser Firefox — has generally found itself squeezed out of the mobile revolution. Despite remaining a strong contender on traditional desktop and notebook computers, Firefox’s story on smartphones and tablets has been less successful. Nearly a year ago, Mozilla announced it would attempt to gain a share of the pie with an open-source smartphone project called Boot to Gecko (B2G). Now, Mozilla has rechristened Boot to Gecko as Firefox OS—and announced it already has support from phone makers and major mobile operators to bring Firefox OS phones to market starting in 2013.

Firefox OS promises to bring all of Mozilla’s strengths to smartphones: First-class HTML5 rendering, efficient design, and a truly open-source platform unencumbered by middleware, privileges partners, or patent litigation. But does Mozilla really have a chance in a market that already has one open-source mobile operating system (Android), another major player (Apple’s iOS), and a third platform (Windows Phone) itching to make a major play?

How Firefox OS will work

At a fundamental level, Firefox OS will have an appealing simplicity: It’s built on an open-source Linux kernel, with Firefox’s open-source Gecko Web rendering engine on top. That’s basically the whole thing. There are no complicated middleware layers and no proprietary technologies. Firefox OS will be a pure Web experience every step of the way. Everything will be an HTML5 application, including the default Web browser, email app, social-networking clients, and games. Even the phone’s dialing capability will be built as an HTML5 app.

If this sounds like a similar idea to Palm’s approach with webOS, you’re kind of right: Palm’s big bet with webOS was that the open-source WebKit rendering engine (the heart of Apple’s Safari browsers and Google’s Chrome) was sophisticated enough to handle the user interface for Palm device. However, that WebKit UI layer was still on top of a proprietary software code. Mozilla is taking the idea one step further by eliminating the proprietary core, going with Linux, and using its own Gecko rendering engine, which the organization claims can be quite efficient even on low-memory devices with slower processors. The result will be something svelter and less encumbered than today’s smartphone platforms, but (perhaps more importantly) it will be a pure Web experience. After all, a lot of the appeal of smartphone is putting the Internet in the palms of users’ hands, and what better way to do that than to fully embrace HTML5 technology?

Using HTML5 technology means Firefox OS will be able to handle offline apps that work even when a user doesn’t have an Internet connection (thanks to local storage capabilities), and the Gecko rendering engine means complex graphics tasks (like watching video or playing games) can be handed off to hardware-accelerated graphics processors. Banking purely on HTML5 technologies will have some downsides. For instance, developing HTML5 clients for things like IMAP and Dropbox may be difficult to impossible—in fact, the initial release of Firefox OS will probably rely on Web-based email services rather than pack a standalone email client. But Mozilla is betting that, over the long term, going with the open Web is a better approach than going with proprietary technologies.

Who’s on board?

Firefox OS might seem like a simple rebranding of B2G if it weren’t for the fact Mozilla also announced it has partners on board. Device makers TCL Communication Technology and China’s ZTE plan to manufacture Firefox OS devices based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon system-on-a-chip platform. Mozilla also says it has several carriers interested, including Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, and Telenor — representing Germany, UAE, the Philippines, Italy, Brazil, and Norway, respectively. In the United States, Firefox OS has support from number-three mobile operator Sprint. The extend of these operators’ support for Firefox OS hasn’t been disclosed. Mozilla has endorsements, but it’s yet to be seen if that will translate to actual actions or putting phones on the market. That said, Mozilla says Telefonica plans to launch the first Firefox OS phones in Brazil in 2013 under its “Vivo” brand.

Target audience

The list of mobile operators expressing support for Firefox OS should give you an idea of where Mozilla thinks it’s going to be able to sell Firefox OS phones: emerging markets. By embracing free, open-source technologies that function well with lower memory and processor resources, Mozilla is hoping to make affordable smartphones that will appeal to customers in places like Brazil, India, China, Africa, and southeast Asia.

“As billions of users are expected to come online for the first time in the coming years, it is important to deliver a compelling smartphone experience that anyone can use,” said Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs.

Entry-level, low-cost smartphones would certainly go a long way towards expanding Internet access worldwide. And mobile operators may find Firefox OS is less constraining than other operating systems on the market. After all — it’s open source, and they can pretty much do anything they like with it.

More open than Android?

So why does Mozilla think the world needs an open source mobile OS — doesn’t the world already have Android?

When Google says Android is “free” and “open,” those terms need to be taken with some grains of salt. Mozilla isn’t too happy about that. True, anyone can download Android source code and put it on a device. But companies that want to make and sell Android devices are probably going to have to negotiate a patent licensing arrangement with Microsoft. Basically, every Android device maker except Google has inked a deal with the Redmond software giant to protect themselves against possible patent infringement suits. Although details haven’t been made public, those agreements have generally been carrying per-device royalties. So much for free.

Furthermore, some members of the Android ecosystem are more equal than others. Google just finished acquiring Motorola Mobility, and it’s hard to believe that Motorola’s hardware makers aren’t going to be in a better position to see (and influence) what’s coming with Android than other device makers. Google also has preferred partners who get early looks at Android while its in development, so they can have their products ready sooner. Companies that aren’t on Google’s friends list kind of have to make due with table scraps.

Firefox has none of that. Although Microsoft has been threatening to go after Linux for patent infringement for years nothing has actually happened, and there’s no patent encumbrance on the Linux kernel. Similarly, Mozilla’s Gecko engine is in the clear, as are all the HTML5 technologies Mozilla will be implementing in Firefox OS.

Similarly, Mozilla has been developing Boot to Gecko (and now, presumably, Firefox OS) with complete transparency. Code is available immediately in a public repository, independent developers can easily get involved without having to sign waivers or buy into a developer program, and there are no privileged players in the Firefox OS ecosystem.

Is HTML5 ready for prime time?

A big question facing Firefox OS is whether the world is ready for phones based exclusively on HTML5 technology. Although most of the Web and mobile development world believes that apps built with HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript will eventually be their primary development platform, right now native apps rule the landscape. Developers can simply do more with the native APIs in Android and iOS than they can do with HTML5. This is particularly true for media- and graphics-intensive applications like games, where hardware acceleration and frameworks can make a major difference in performance.

There are some areas where HTML5 is not ready for phones. Mozilla openly admits its working to extend Web standards to embrace things like power management and basic telephony — stuff that’s pretty important to a Web-based smartphone.

Mozilla may also have difficulty bringing application developers on board. In theory, embracing HTML5 means that mobile developers can use any Web development tool they like to build apps for Firefox OS — that can range from simple text editors to sophisticated Web development environments. However, competing platforms like Android, iOS, and Windows Phone have rich integrated development environments. Developers already invested in those platforms will not be able to leverage much of their work for Firefox OS devices. That means bringing things like Angry Birds or Street Fighter to Firefox OS won’t be a cakewalk.

Gaming may also not be as feasible under HTML5 — at least not yet. While simple casual games are eminently do-able under HTML5 as it exists today, HTML5 does not yet offer capabilities that truly rival native APIs or environments like Flash. (Not that Flash is a real player anyway: iOS has never had Flash, and Adobe just announced they won’t be producing Flash Player for Android 4.1 or any future version of Android.) That said, Adobe is retooling for HTML5, which means some sophisticated animation and authoring tools should be available. During an interview at Google I/O Adobe’s Arno Gourdol opined that Web technologies are probably getting close to 80 percent of the capabilities supported by Flash; however, much of the missing 20 percent seems to be high-end capabilities and interactions most valued by game developers.

Challenges

In principle, Firefox OS seems like a solid idea, and its embrace of HTML5 may well bethe face of things to come for mobile development. But Firefox OS won’t exist in a vacuum — there’s already a complicated set of mobile ecosystems out there, all of which are competing for marketshare, developers, and users’ loyalty.

The obvious major challenge to Firefox OS is Android. After all, Android is kind-of-sort-of free and open so carriers and device makers are free to fiddle with the operating system and turn it into something they think will appeal to customers — or at least make them money. After all, China’s Biadu has done its own Android fork and substituted its own Web-based services for Google’s — and because Android is “free” and “open,” there’s nothing Google can really do about that. Similarly, Amazon has all-but-buried Android beneath its own custom interface on the Kindle Fire. Does anyone really need a fully open source, HTML5 mobile operating system when Android is already so malleable — and Google is willing to let mobile operators have their way with it? And Android devices are already defining the low-end of the smartphone market (some devices are already available for free), and Google just last week trumpted how well Android offerings are doing in markets like Thailand, India, and Brazil.

There’s also no lack of open-source mobile operating systems already out there. Palm’s webOS is in the process of going open source, and it’s already jumped through most of the hoops Firefox OS is negotiating now. And don’t forget Tizen, which boasts support from both Nokia’s abandoned MeeGo operating system and Samsung’s Bada. That’s a much longer mobile pedigree than anything Mozilla can offer.

And let’s not forget Symbian. Sure, Nokia has lost its place as the world’s top maker of mobile handsets and the company’s Windows Phone offerings have yet to light a fire under consumers — which probably wasn’t helped by Microsoft announcing none of them will support Windows Phone 8. But Symbian continues to be a major player in entry-level phones aimed at emerging markets. And if you haven’t seen Symbian since 2006, it hasn’t been sitting still. For many phone users around the world, it’ll meet their communication and Internet needs just fine.

There’s also key word missing from Mozilla’s Firefox OS announcement: tablets. These days, it’s almost impossible to talk about a mobile platform without discussing its strategy for tablets, even if the market is still utterly dominated by the iPad. Right now, Mozilla is aiming Firefox OS purely at the entry level phone market. If there are plans to scale Firefox OS to tablets, Mozilla—and its hardware partners—haven’t said one word about it.

Bottom line

Mozilla is to be lauded for walking the walk with Firefox OS: The organization has long been a champion of open Web standards, and its putting its money and talent where its mouth is by backing a purely open, Web-based mobile strategy. Whether that strategy can succeed depends on whether the world is ready to embrace another major player in the mobile OS market and, looking a few years down the road, the degree to which mobile operating systems are going to matter in a mobile world that will be increasingly driven by an ecosystem driven by digital content and services.